Football: Disagreeing with Waterloo's decision to suspend

Let's get one thing clear right off the top: this issue is bigger than Waterloo.

Football and steroids simply go together. I wrote a while back that nobody saw this coming, except everybody. Bruce Arthur writes at the National Post that this "is not so much of a shock as it was an inevitability."

Nine positive tests came back from 62 Waterloo players, 20 of whom had blood samples taken. But there are some 1,500 CIS football players across the country, and only a tiny, tiny fraction are ever tested. It cannot be overemphasized that Waterloo's players were only brought in for testing after an unrelated police investigation turned into a steroid investigation.

If, for whatever reason, Waterloo Regional Police had not followed up on the alleged break-and-enter, then we wouldn't even have these positive tests. So who knows what the situation is at other universities fortunate enough to not have players under police investigation. It seems that Waterloo has to play the Ben Johnson-Charlie Francis role here, and be the centre for criticism.

But if there are several users on a mediocre football team where very few players have realistic professional futures, one can only speculate how widespread drug use is at more successful programs where the additional benefits, so to speak, could result in more of a payoff than merely moving from eighth place to seventh.

To return to Waterloo, though, it's hard to see how the suspension is the best decision they could have made. The university has their reasons, but it's not fair when the players who admitted to breaking the rules lose two years of football while the players who did not break the rules still lose one.

Read any news report from today and you'll find a Waterloo player who didn't test positive and is gigantically frustrated at UW's decision. Just to take two examples from Allan Maki's excellent piece, receiver Dustin Zender talks about the players' lives (or at least their football lives) being ruined, and linebacker Jordan Verdone isn't happy at all with the university: "Our entire team was tested. We did what we were asked ... You can’t paint the whole team with the same brush. It’s just disheartening." Players might be allowed to transfer and play in 2010, but that does not mean someone can find a good academic fit, let alone in three months.

The Waterloo players don't seem to be able to make that transfer, so any player who's entering his fifth year, and has shown up every day to practice, and put forth an honest effort, and followed the rules throughout...well, he's now rewarded by having his football career ended. Just like that.

It seems like the decision to suspend was a short-term PR move: simply put, it's easier for the school to sit out a year, and avoid the barrage of steroid questions that would come up at every pre- and post-game press conference in the fall. By 2011, people -- and here I mean the drive-by media -- might forget about it, or at least not care much anymore. There aren't the resources in newsrooms these days to have any kind of long-term memory.

Arthur said, "The CIS is a houseplant that doesn't attract much light, and this particular spotlight could easily fade away." This is all the more true for Waterloo, which (to extend the analogy) is one of the dead leaves you find on the floor nearby. Case in point: McGill's football team had quite the turnaround year in '09, and I didn't see anyone who mentioned their hazing troubles from '05. And I'm not holding my breath until the next time a Globe and Mail writer cries foul over a CIS hockey player who's in his late 20s.

In a bit of coincidence, on Friday afternoon I'll be at UW's Physical Activities Complex (the same building in which the news conference was held today), for convocation. When I'm there, I'll look up and see the championship banners hanging from the ceiling, and I'll think (though not for the first time) that most of those banners are decades old. Waterloo basketball, once a riotous good time, is now played in front of tens of people, some of whom are actually awake and facing the right way. The hockey teams play in an uncomfortable barn with intermittent heating. Sports simply aren't a priority on campus, if they ever really were.

So the last thing the University of Waterloo needs is another long-term black mark on their athletics programs. Unfortunately, that's exactly what this is. By suspending the entire team, instead of just those who violated the rules and regulations and then playing out the string with a depleted roster, 2010 won't go down in the record books as just another year of two wins, six losses, and no playoff appearance. It'll be the season they lost everything because of drug use.
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